As summer approaches, local leaders are worried more families will go hungry due to a rise in food insecurity in Hays County.

The increase comes after significant reductions in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and the rising cost of groceries, said Kelley Carter, the Hays County Food Bank development manager.

SNAP is a government food assistance program primarily for low-income individuals who receive a monthly stipend for food items.

“Families that previously may have been getting $200 [in SNAP benefits] for a two-person household could very well have been reduced down to $50—$20 I hear occasionally—and that’s for monthly assistance so it doesn’t go very far in the grocery stores,” Carter said.

The cause

In early 2020, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which allowed states to provide each SNAP household with the highest possible dollar amount for their household size.

But in December 2022, Congress passed the Omnibus Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2022-2023, which made February 2023 the final month for temporary emergency allotments.

Prior to the reduction in SNAP benefits, increasingly more families were seeking assistance.

Food bank officials served 47.8% more new households between 2021 and 2023, and approximately 23,819 more individuals in 2023 compared to the previous year.

“Between the rising cost of food, decrease in benefit amounts and increase in work requirements, many of our clients are finding the SNAP program to be a drop in the bucket of their food needs,” Carter said.

SNAP has two sets of work requirements, general ones and ones for able- bodied adults without dependents. Previously, the requirements had individuals ages 18-49 work or attend job training for at least 80 hours each month.

But The Fiscal Responsibility Act has gradually increased that age limit, meaning older individuals are required to work to qualify for food assistance. On Sept. 1 the age increased to 50, and increased again on Oct. 1 to 52. The age requirement will increase one more time on Oct. 1, 2024 to 54.

Households may qualify for SNAP benefits depending on size and annual income level, for example, a two-person household making $26,572 per year would be eligible for SNAP.

Diving in deeper

Tracy Ayrhart, vice president of strategic insights at the Central Texas Food Bank, said a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows 2024 as having the largest one year increase in food insecurity since 2008.

The Consumer Price Index, or CPI, for meats, poultry, fish and eggs rose by 0.9% in March, according to an economic news release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The CPI measures the change in prices paid by consumers for goods and services and is based on prices of food, fuel, clothing and other goods and services that individuals purchase for day-to-day living.

The index for eggs also rose 4.6%, and fruits and vegetables increased 0.1% over the month.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of eggs, milk, chicken and bread have increased since January 2019.
  • Bread: 45.18% increase
  • Chicken: 30.24% increase
  • Eggs: 63.84% increase
  • Milk: 27.76% increase
Why it matters

Sue Inonog, a primary care physician at Harbor Health explained that eating foods of low nutritional value can lead to acute and chronic health conditions.

She emphasized that access to a varied diet high in minerals, fiber and protein can help set individuals up for success. However, the Western diet tends to be high in saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium, which can predispose people to cardiovascular disease.

“I think that there is a lot of buzz around ultra-processed foods which tend not to be nutrient dense ... and those types of foods can really predispose our bodies to insulin resistance,” Inonog said.

Who it affects

Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain ability to acquire nutritionally adequate and safe foods in socially acceptable ways, according to the USDA.

In 2024, 15.9% of individuals in Hays County suffered from food insecurity. This is a 6,000-person increase from 2023, according to the CTFB.

Ayrhart said the latest food insecurity rates in Hays County show that out of nearly 39,000 individuals, more than 41% are under the age of 18 or over the age of 60.

“What’s concerning about that number is that the residents who are being impacted by that are above the federal poverty line and what that means is they’re [going to] have lower access to resources that will be able to provide them that food,” Matthew Gonzales, Hays County’s health department manager said.

According to the CTFB, in Hays County since 2019 there has been a:
  • 27.9% increase in food insecurity
  • 41.26% increase in food insecure individuals
  • 21.5% increase in average cost of one meal

Managing the impact

Local nonprofit organizations and government entities are working together to find solutions for combating food insecurity.

The HCFB is in the process of relocating into the former Hays Co. Bar-b-Que restaurant just off I-35 in San Marcos. The food bank is also going to create a “client-choice” model where clients can come in with their families and shop for food.

The CTFB partnered with Hays County to conduct the first countywide Food Needs Assessment. Gonzales said county officials have been unable to keep up with the growth, and as a result, they wanted to see what food accessibility looks like within Hays County.

The Food Needs Assessment kicked off in January 2024 and will cost about $30,000 which is being funded by the CTFB.

Ayrhart said that demand was on the rise, but there needed to be investments in both charitable services and system solutions.

“We know we can’t food bank our way out of this,” Ayrhart said.

The Food Needs Assessment is on track to be completed by the end of July.

“Hays County’s growing at an astronomical rate,” Ayrhart said. “When you look at the need and the services there, it is one of the areas that stands out to us as needing a lot more infrastructure and support to meet this rising demand.”